People are animals. Literally. Biologically. Much as our species has always tried to separate ourselves from the rest of God’s creations and reign above the “lesser creatures” who lack the curse of reason, there’s ultimately less difference than we’d like to imagine between homo sapiens and horses, or fish, or dogs (we’re nothing like spiders, though, those things are wild little freaks). 

And yet, from the first displays of tribalism to the days of strictly bordered nation-states, our instinct to other everything under the sun has defined us almost as much as our ability to walk upright. We like to think of humans as being made in God’s image, and yet our abiding need to justify our dominion — to find some way to live with our nagging awareness of death — has made it so that people can hardly even see themselves in their fellow man.

That’s by design. Anything that dares to challenge that dynamic is killed or put in a cage. Dehumanized. But what might happen if the line between humans and animals was suddenly blurred to the point of abstraction? It goes without saying that fear and violence would be our first response, but how would civilization think of itself if it lost the ability to deny its true nature? In other words: How fucking crazy would it be if people started turning into giant birds? 

That is the question at the heart of Thomas Cailley’s “The Animal Kingdom,” a light but meaty piece of magical-realism that threads the needle between Cronenbergian body horror and Miyazaki-like fantasy to create a modern parable that evokes any number of identifiable emergencies — deforestation, the AIDS epidemic, the global migration crisis and its attendant xenophobia, etc. — in the service of a story that refuses to be reduced into a clear metaphor for any one of them. After all, Cailley’s film is considerably less interested in “fixing” society than it is in society’s unwillingness to be fixed; in how our boundless capacity for adaptation makes it extremely difficult to create any meaningful kind of change.

In that sense, “The Animal Kingdom” could be seen as a COVID movie of sorts, a reading supported by the fact that it starts in the midst of a pandemic that everyone’s pretending not to notice. It’s just another day for frazzled chef François (Romain Duris) and his teenage son Emile (Paul Kircher) as they sit in bumper-to-bumper Paris traffic and argue you about the merits of junk food (“Eating is like talking,” François insists, “it defines you as a human being).

But something is going on inside the ambulance that’s stopped in front of them — something large and strong is trying to escape. Eventually, with a shock of noise that anticipates this film’s complicated relationship to fear, a one-winged birdman explodes out of the ambulance and screams into the streets as it flees the scene. François catches the eye of a fellow motorist who shrugs off the incredible sight they’ve just witnessed: “Oh, the times we live in!”

François and Emile understand what he means all too well: They’re on their way to the hospital where their wife/mom has been living under medical detention ever since she started her slow — and still-ongoing — transformation into a jungle cat of some kind (the brilliantly tactile prosthetics earn this film its comparisons to horror classics, even if the creatures’ expressive final forms are what ultimately seals its bond to the likes of “Princess Mononoke”). Cailley shoots Emile’s mom as if she’s suffering from a terminal illness, and the script he co-wrote with Pauline Munier is careful not to dissuade us of the idea that this unnamed transformation disease is tantamount to a death sentence.

When Emile notices a claw growing under his fingernail, we assume that his days are numbered. He seems to come to the same conclusion, as that discovery makes for the film’s sweetest and most harrowing scene: Emile manically strips off his clothes and tries to wash away his symptoms in the bathtub as the family dog hops in with him and consoles him with kisses. It’s almost as if the pet is trying to reassure Emile that turning into an animal isn’t so bad. It’s not even all that different.

By this point in the story, François has already relocated his family to the countryside in order to get his wife some fresh air — a plan that immediately goes awry when her transport vehicle crashes in a nearby forest, unleashing dozens of “critters” into the local area. Emile might tell the other kids at his new high school that his mom is dead, but he and François see her in every shadow, and even walk through the woods at night calling out her name. 

Meanwhile, other chimeras are popping up all over the place (the scene where an octopus-person is caught eating fish from the local supermarket lands with the same off-kilter energy that Bong Joon Ho brought to the mall chase in “Okja”), and the prettiest member of the local police department or whatever isn’t entirely convinced that locking them up is the best way to deal with the situation.

Her name is Julia and she’s played by the great Adèle Exarchopoulos, who’s wasted in a role that amounts to little more than a red herring. Like Emile’s new crush at school, who’s ostensibly sympathetic to his differences because of her experience with ADHD, Julia invites one of the film’s leading men to turn his back on the whole “critter” situation and move forward on normal human terms, but “The Animal Kingdom” never seriously entertains that possibility. It’s too keyed into the business of Emile’s transformation (is puberty not hard enough!?), and the tender strain of François’ efforts to help his son hide the symptoms of his idiopathic “sickness.” Those efforts may come from a good place, but it’s only a matter of time before Emile will no longer be able to disguise his nature, and François will have to find a form of love that doesn’t hinge on denial. 

Duris cuts into François with a serrated anxiety that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever been at a loss to help their child, but he simply doesn’t get to spend enough time with Kirscher’s character for their relationship to feel as fleshed out as any of the wackiness around it, and it’s a minor miracle that “The Animal Kingdom” is able to salvage a hit of raw emotionality from that father-son dynamic when it matters most. It’s likewise a minor miracle that Cailley is able to pull off a brief detour into “Little Miss Sunshine” territory at the end of a movie that more often maintains the coiled posture of a creature feature or an eco-thriller, but that tonal tug-of-war effectively reflects Emile’s internal conflict about which part of the world he belongs to. 

Emile’s natural inclination is to rage at his emergent animalism, but a chance encounter with the birdman from the prologue sparks a friendship that leads the kid towards acceptance. The birdman’s name is Fix, he’s played by “Synonyms” breakout Tom Mercier (primal, strapping, and more than a little scary below mottled layers of prosthetics), and he’s scared of flying. In part, that’s because it would represent the end of his humanity, and in part that’s because it would involve jumping out of a tree. Maybe his leap of faith might inspire one from Emile in return. 

Needless to say, there’s a lot going on in “The Animal Kingdom,” and Cailley’s reluctance to let it become one thing at the expense of another — his thematically appropriate resistance to a clear taxonomy — sometimes allows this movie to feel more undefined than boundless. There are frequent stretches in which the film’s pursuit of a hybrid identity puts it at risk of losing a crucial sense of self. But as “The Animal Kingdom” chips away at its endemic otherness, and the local townsfolk act increasingly hostile towards to the chimeras around them in return, the film’s amorphousness congeals into an overriding truth that’s beautiful and open enough to hold all of its ideas together: Emile doesn’t have to choose which world he belongs to, because there’s only one world to choose from, and he’s been living in it his entire life.

Grade: B

A Magnet Releasing production, “The Animal Kingdom” is now playing in theaters and is available to rent on VOD.

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